3 Steps to Improving Your Appeal Letter

Posted on 01/06/2019

The 20th-century British novelist and poet Robert Graves once said, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” The world of annual giving is no exception, and this serves as a reminder that no appeal letter is ever perfectly written on the first attempt. Too often, however, time-strapped annual giving staff end up rushing and not putting enough effort into reviewing and revising their work. The truth is, a rewrite is often what distinguishes a good appeal letter from a great appeal letter.

Thanks to spellcheck and autocorrect, it’s easy to become a passive editor. Yet it remains critical to be a proactive editor, and it often takes several drafts to get things right. In the case of written fundraising appeals, editing must accomplish a number of objectives beyond just eliminating errors in grammar and spelling. It should also reflect on broader strategic questions before the piece is considered ready to send.

To help guide you through the important review and editing process, consider employing these three steps after completing the initial draft of your next appeal letter:

  1. Review it from the viewpoint of the donor. Is it an interesting story? Does the beginning capture the reader’s attention? Is the case for support clearly articulated? Does it create a sense of urgency to make a gift? You should feel confident that your readers will be drawn in and come away with an understanding of why and when they should make a gift.
  2. Make sure it’s properly “aligned.” Is the tone fitting for the person reading it? Does the messaging feel consistent with the institution’s brand? If there is a comprehensive campaign underway, is it tied in? Look for the letter to check these boxes and, if needed, make adjustments to word choice or phrasing to give the appeal an appropriate and cohesive feel. 
  3. Proof for flow and technical errors. Are sentences and paragraphs easy to read aloud? Is the piece free of spelling and grammar errors? Are names, titles, buildings, and other details correct? Have you made the most of emphasis techniques (such as bolding, underlines, and post-scripts) to highlight the key points without causing distractions or making the page seem too busy? As you wrap up content revisions, don’t forget to take the time to ensure the whole piece flows well and reads accurately.

Like most any skill, your appeal writing will improve if you revisit it again (and again) after your first try. Ensuring that you are clearly and compellingly communicating your message in a way that fits with your overall brand is just as important as checking for typos. Write well, but using these three tactics, rewrite even better.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Writing Effective Annual Fund Appeals.

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Announcing AGN’s New Sample Library

Posted on 12/30/2018

AGN is pleased to announce the launch of our new Sample Library. Comprised of submissions from the recent Best in Annual Giving Challenge, the library showcases great work from hundreds of participating institutions, featuring direct mail appeals, emails, scripts, stewardship pieces, volunteer materials, webpages, advertisements, giving day and crowdfunding collateral, and other special campaigns. A few of our favorites include:

  • Delaware’s Faculty & Staff Door Hanger Effort
  • UCLA’s Laurel & Hardy Crowdfunding Campaign
  • Charles River School’s Stewardship Valentine
  • Columbia’s Giving Day Origami Mailing

In celebration of all of this inspiring work, access to the Sample Library is currently open to all. Each one contains images and important details such as the effort’s audience, goals and results. Those that are particularly creative, innovative, or high-quality have been noted with a “star” and will be featured in upcoming AGN articles, case studies and webinars.


After February 8th, the Sample Library will be accessible only to AGN Plus Members.
AGN’s research team will continue to add new samples and ensure that the library grows and serves as a valuable resource. Click here to learn about the benefits of AGN Membership and guarantee your uninterrupted access to the new Sample Library.

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4 Ways To Be A Better Listener With Donors

Posted on 12/23/2018

Are you a good listener? Effective fundraisers need to be. Listening helps you learn more about a prospect’s history with an institution, their personal passions, and their philanthropic motivations. Strong listening skills can also help build rapport with donors and increase your credibility during meetings.

But listening is not a passive activity. There is a difference between just hearing what your donors are saying and actually listening to them. Active listening involves asking probing questions and making connections with your prospect. When you listen well, you are better able to align donor interests with the right philanthropic opportunities.

So how do you improve your listening skills? Consider these four tips to help master the art of listening during your next donor meeting:

  1. Ask open-ended questions. These will force your prospects to think, help them engage more in the conversation, and uncover a deeper understanding of your prospect’s connection to your institution and interests. Use follow-up questions that start with phrases like “tell me about that…” or “how so?” to peel back the layers.
  2. Use body language that demonstrates listening. Making eye contact, nodding your head, and maintaining a similar posture are all expressions of interest. Mirroring the prospect’s pace of speech, style, and even tone of voice can also help them feel more comfortable during the conversation.
  3. Restate what you have heard to clarify. Repeating back what you hear shows that you are actually listening and gives the prospect an opportunity to clarify and correct, if necessary. Employing phrases such as “what I’m hearing you say…” or “it sounds like…” can help you better translate their feelings into opportunities or delve deeper into a topic.
  4. Limit your own speaking to 25 percent of the conversation. Talking too much prevents you from gaining insight into your prospect. Whether you are naturally extroverted or just feeling nervous, resist the urge to fill lulls in conversation with words. Remember that the meeting is not about you, it’s about the prospect.

Listening is hard work. Whether you are a seasoned fundraiser or someone new to the profession, it takes effort to keep donors talking. By focusing more on what your prospect is saying, you’ll be better able to align their interests with opportunities. So set your agenda aside and open your ears—you’ll be well on your way to a stronger and more productive donor relationship.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Listening to Donors Strategically. 

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A Low-Cost Approach to Renewing Donors

Posted on 12/16/2018

Acquiring new donors is an expensive proposition. And with increasingly tight budgets, annual giving teams have to carefully consider where they are allocating their resources. To maintain high return on investment, it is important to ask the question: where do you invest, and where should you cut back?

One area to consider scaling down is your renewal appeals. Your loyal donors don’t need to be convinced to make a gift since they already have—they already love you. Data shows that donors who give year after year are more likely to continue to contribute, so sending pricey multi-page, glossy appeals may not be necessary.

An invoice-style appeal, sometimes called an “Ugly Betty,” remains popular among annual giving programs due to its simple, no-frills design and low production costs. It doesn’t contain a wordy case for support or compelling pictures. In fact, it looks more like a billing statement than a traditional fundraising piece.

Auburn University sends this type of appeal to their loyalty society members each year. The mailing is printed in-house and is personalized with last gift amounts and gift allocations, so donors can see their previous areas of support. The response card also includes complete contact information, which the team has found to be very effective in eliciting updates. Donors seem to prefer correcting their contact information if it’s printed, versus filling in the blanks when asked.

According to Susan Cowart, Auburn’s Director of Parent and Annual Giving, this type of appeal makes sense for their loyal donors. While graphics and bold images may seem better, a simple letter still does the job. Auburn’s Foy Loyalty Society appeals raise over $400,000 a year, and pre-populating contact information yields 75 percent more updates than their other mailings.

Creativity counts, but consider the best place to use it. Acquiring new donors and stewarding your existing donors are great places to invest your time and resources. But today’s donors are busy, and a simple approach may be the best way to convey an important message to your most loyal supporters: it’s time to renew your gift!

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Rethinking Direct Mail Appeals.

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5 Tips to Make Your Email Appeals Stand Out

Posted on 12/09/2018

Email inboxes are perpetually full these days. And even though email offers a relatively easy and low-cost way for institutions to solicit constituents, it doesn’t always capture a prospective donor’s attention amid all of the other marketing noise and clutter. If your email gets overlooked in a busy inbox, there’s simply no way it can be effective. But as soon as your email is opened, your chances of securing a donation improve.

So how do you influence prospective donors to read your emails? The battle for their limited attention span starts with the subject line. As it’s the first (and quite possibly the only) thing they’ll see, it’s important to be strategic and choose your words carefully. Keep in mind that your constituents are likely getting dozens—if not hundreds—of other emails each day, so making sure your subject line stands out is critical.

Here are five tips for creating more compelling subject lines that will lead your prospects to open your email appeals:

  1. Grab their attention – Be concise and direct, like a newspaper headline. Pull them in and make them want to read more. Ask questions that generate curiosity, like “Is your name on this list?” Or use numbered phrases: “6 reasons you should donate today.”
  2. Make it relevant – The point is not to trick someone into opening your email. The point is to get those who will be interested in what’s inside to open it. It’s better to have a lower open rate and a higher click-through or conversion rate than the other way around. If you have a video to share, preview that with a subject line like “Watch this video!”
  3. Create urgency – Use deadlines. Let them know if “time is running out” or if it’s their “last chance” to get their gift matched. Year-ends and challenges provide natural opportunities to create a sense of urgency.
  4. Beware of spam filters – Certain phrases or characters can cause your emails to get flagged as mass emails and automatically dumped into junk/spam folders where it’s likely your constituents will never even see them. To avoid this, try not to use words like “free” or “exclusive” in your subject line, and limit excessive special characters or text in all capital letters.
  5. Keep your eye on the prize – If you are sending an email with an ask, don’t get too bogged down in other metrics. When you A/B test, you’re searching for the subject line that yields the most gifts and revenue, not necessarily the one with the highest open rate.

Don’t underestimate the importance of thoughtful subject lines for your email appeals. And don’t try to figure out the right one without doing some research. Watch the private sector, ask colleagues for input, and do some A/B testing of your own. This might take a little extra time, but it’ll be worth the effort. An email appeal can only be effective if it’s opened, and a strong subject line is the first opportunity to catch your donor’s attention.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Email Strategy for Annual Giving. 

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Having Fun with Donor Incentives

Posted on 12/02/2018

Offering small token gifts to donors is a familiar strategy for annual giving programs. Aside from serving as a way to say thank you, little “tchotchkes” can help keep an institution top-of-mind in their daily lives. Equally important, they can also function as an incentive for donors by providing them with something tangible in return for their support. But some of the more common tactics—like calendars, address labels, and car decals—can get old year after year.

American University (AU) recently found a way to introduce a little fun and humor into their fiscal year-end solicitations by launching a more creative incentive campaign. During the month of June, alumni, faculty/staff members, and parents received appeals offering a pair of AU-branded socks for donors who made gifts of $35 or more.

The team used lighthearted messaging that played up clever sock humor, proclaiming to recipients that “You + AU = The Perfect Pair.” Puns were injected throughout the appeals, inviting donors to “put [their] best foot forward” and “show [they] were head over heels for AU” by making a gift. Though the appeal was sent by the central annual giving program, donors were encouraged to support any area that “knocks their socks off.” The campaign was promoted primarily through less expensive digital channels, including targeted emails, paid social media posts, and pop-up advertisements on high-traffic websites. Donors were directed to a campaign landing page where they could learn more about the offer and make their donation.

The sock campaign was a big success, generating 141 gifts and nearly $40,000 in revenue. According to Katelynd Anderson, associate director of annual giving at AU, nearly half of these gifts came from young alumni, which is typically an underperforming group. The campaign was also a great tool for acquiring new donors and reactivating lapsed donors, with nearly half of the respondents falling into one of these two categories. And while many of the gifts (especially those from new and younger donors) were at or around the $35 threshold, it helped generate higher gift amounts as well as leadership donors. In fact, the average gift was a higher-than-average $278.

From address labels to tech tags, donor incentives should be used strategically to drive results and thank loyal donors. These incentives—and the campaigns that promote them—can leverage fun and humor to catch the attention of your audience and engage your constituents in a new way. So get creative and put your best foot forward; you might just find yourself floored by the results.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Communicating with Young Alumni About Giving.

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Finding the Right Appeal Frequency

Posted on 11/25/2018

One of Aesop’s great fables is about a shepherd boy who repeatedly tricks nearby villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking his flock. Time and time again the villagers come to his aid only to discover that he doesn’t really need their aid. In the story’s tragic ending, a real wolf finally does appear. When the boy again cries out for help, the villagers ignore him and the sheep are eaten by the wolf.

Besides offering the important lesson to always tell the truth, this story also has an application for annual giving professionals: be wary of asking too often. But understanding that donors usually don’t give unless they’re asked, many annual giving programs struggle to determine the right frequencies for solicitations.

There’s a lot of noise and competition out there for limited philanthropic dollars. An aggressive strategy can keep your institution (and its need for support) top of mind for your constituents. The more often you ask, the more likely it is that your appeal will be heard. Being assertive can also produce better results. There is, in fact, a correlation between higher appeal frequency and higher participation rates.

While frequent appeals draw more attention to your institution, they can also create donor fatigue. The more you ask, the more you risk alienating your prospects over time. It doesn’t take much for someone to click the unsubscribe link in your email or request to be taken off your call list. Asking too often also risks causing your constituents to lose interest in all of your communications—appeals and otherwise.

The optimal frequency depends on a number of factors including your budget, school culture, and goals. Ultimately, good solicitation and segmentation strategies consider more than just appeal frequency; they also balance method, message, and timing. What, how, and when you ask are just as—if not more—important as how often you ask. You’ll know when you’ve found the right balance for your audience when you start noticing a trend toward positive results.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Segmenting Direct Mail Appeals.

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Crafting a Recipe for Donor Retention

Posted on 11/18/2018

What is the secret ingredient for retaining donors from one year to the next?

Does it lie in the timing of your appeals: when you solicit them again after their previous gift? Could it depend on the messages you convey: how well you describe the impact of their support or how clever your solicitations appear? Or maybe it hangs on the experiences your donors have following their donation: did they received a proper gift acknowledgment or were they offered opportunities to engage through events or volunteering?

The reality is that there’s more than one ingredient in a good retention strategy. It’s a combination—and a balance—of all of these things that ultimately leaves a good taste in your donors’ mouths and makes them hungry to give more.

Understanding how good stewardship can have a positive impact on donor retention, Boston College shared a little something extra with their donors just before Thanksgiving: the university’s holiday cookbook. This special online publication contains recipes (all named after iconic features of the university and its campus) for such seasonable dishes as Eagle Pride Pork Loin, Burns Bread Pudding, and Chestnut Hill Cranberry Kumquat Relish.

According to Amy Ferguson, Boston College’s Director of Leadership Donor Engagement, the team uses a variety of creative events and communications throughout the year to show donors how they are a critical part of the school community. Ongoing stewardship touches, like the holiday cookbook, help cultivate donors who feel connected on a personal level—and are more likely to renew their annual support as a result.

It’s important to remind donors that they’re special outside of the times when they’re being solicited. Let them know that they’re appreciated, especially during the holiday season. And don’t be afraid to give a little something back. When the time comes for them to decide whether or not to renew their support, your extra little gestures might just be the icing on the cake.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Donor Retention in the Modern Age.

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Setting Expectations for Young Alumni Volunteers

Posted on 11/11/2018

Good volunteers make a big difference in the success of your annual giving efforts. It’s their love for the institution, their personal connections, and their shared experiences that make them effective fundraisers. But recruiting the right people to serve as volunteers requires a lot of time and effort. When you finally have them on board, it’s crucial to keep them engaged and happy. Successful engagement includes setting clear expectations and letting them know exactly what it is that you want them to do. This is particularly important in the case of younger volunteers who may have less experience in leadership roles.

The annual giving team at James Madison University (JMU) recognizes that communicating expectations can have an impact on the success of a volunteer program. Having recently launched a new group of young alumni leaders known as the GOLD Network Board, the team wanted to ensure that each volunteer understood what they’d signed up to do. With this in mind, they created a charge (essentially a job description) that laid out the following GOLD Network volunteer expectations:

  • Making a gift annually at a leadership level
  • Attending alumni events in their area
  • Spreading the word on social media about the university and the impact of philanthropy
  • Participating in retreats on campus and by phone
  • Engaging and soliciting a group of 10-15 fellow alumni each year

In addition, members are asked to serve on one of five specialized committees to spearhead focused activities. These groups include:

  • Relations: Interfacing with alumni chapters and other boards
  • Marketing: Assisting with messaging and social media strategy
  • Stewardship: Advising on donor benefits and helping with donor follow-up once gifts are received
  • Development: Helping to educate young alumni on the importance of giving and to train volunteers
  • Network: Serving as career and networking advisors for young alumni

Gretchen Armentrout, JMU’s director of annual giving, has been impressed by the GOLD Network’s level of engagement and interest in fundraising. By setting clear expectations for the group, they’ve been able to recruit active volunteers who are excited and motivated by their charge. She reports that GOLD Network volunteers even took their advocacy role a step further during the school’s recent giving day, when marketing committee members extended their reach by working with JMU alumni chapter leadership to design messaging and create social media content.

When you clearly communicate expectations for your volunteers, you help ensure that the group is ready and excited for the commitment. And there’s no doubt that motivated and engaged volunteers have a positive effect on annual giving efforts. By starting this with your young alumni, you will see success not only in the volunteer program in the near-term, you’ll also likely set the stage for continued involvement and leadership as your volunteers mature.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Productive Annual Fund Volunteers.

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Going Social to Determine Donor Interests

Posted on 11/04/2018

Nothing makes a fundraising appeal more effective than when it speaks to a prospective donor personally. There are numerous techniques for achieving this, from addressing the prospect by name, to acknowledging an action they’ve taken in the past (such as making a gift or attending an event), or simply adding a handwritten note at the bottom of a letter. One of the best ways to make an appeal feel personal is to make sure the content aligns with the recipient’s individual interests. Instead of sending all of your prospects a generic “one size fits all” appeal, try one that shares information on—and asks them to support—something that they really care about.

But, how? Fundraisers are not mind-readers, and while alumni and donor databases can include information on prospects’ interests and preferences, that data is often limited and outdated. Fortunately, the proliferation of social media now offers a way to access and use information on prospects that tends to be more accurate than what’s sitting in the institution’s own files. And as college and university advancement programs are increasing the amount of content that they’re posting to social media channels, there is a growing opportunity to watch how alumni respond and learn more about them.

The annual giving team at Bentley University has recognized the value of utilizing social media as a donor research tool, leading them to invest more time and resources into mining it. By monitoring who “likes” and comments on particular content on Facebook and other channels, they gain valuable data points and then use that information to better inform their solicitation strategies. For example, if the university posts on their Facebook page that the basketball team has won a game and 25 alumni engage with that post, the annual giving team knows that those 25 alumni are possible prospects for future solicitations to support the basketball team.

As populations of special interest are identified, potential donors and segments are flagged in the prospect database. While there is a growing number of software tools out there to assist with this process, it’s also possible to do this manually. Then, as the team develops its solicitation strategies throughout the year, they have access to this information to help make decisions about who, how, and when to target.

According to Sue Beebee Gagné, Bentley’s Director of Annual Giving, taking advantage of social media is part of an evolution in annual giving. Younger donors are more interested in directing their philanthropy to areas that are meaningful to them, and using social media helps build a better connection with those donors and drives future investment. The team is so optimistic about this approach to donor research and marketing that they’ve created a new position on their annual giving team exclusively dedicated to engaging with alumni via social media channels. In fact, the first person they hired for the role is a recent graduate who not only has a good grasp of social media but who is also very familiar with the organization and culture of the university. And while the team hasn’t set specific dollar goals for this position yet, they hope and expect that the investment will lead to increased participation over time, particularly among younger alumni.

In this day and age, with people interacting digitally as much as (if not more than!) in person, you’re missing out on some of the best opportunities to not only engage your base but also to learn more about them if you aren’t leveraging social media channels in your work. By employing even basic data mining and analytics, you can gain valuable insight to help guide the personalization of your appeals. So go social—in this situation, no doubt it will be time well spent.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Analyzing Social Media Data to Improve Fundraising.

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